Many of us are relative neophytes in the world of social media, cell phone cameras, and amateur journalism. We still operate under the practices from a generation ago when it was commonly understood that some information and conversations were “in the family”. It allowed us to communicate more freely, use shorthand, and trust that we’d be given the benefit of the doubt if something came out awkwardly because everyone who heard us was essentially on our side.
Numerous examples in recent months have demonstrated that times have changed. Whether it’s embarrassing videos from campaign fundraisers, emails leaked by disgruntled employees, websites meant for our supporters that betray a different agenda than some of our public statements, or any of the other ways in which “inside” conversations became fodder for public scrutiny, we can no longer assume that we know the extent or bias of any audience.
What this means is that we need to anticipate that our communications may be received by our critics, opponents, and the general public; and without the full context of the intended audience. We have to prepare any presentation with awareness that it might not stay within the circles we plan. Otherwise we may find ourselves spending time and energy clarifying and defending something that should have been innocuous.
How do we do this? Here are a few thoughts:
-always assume anything you publish or present may be shared beyond the immediate target
-intentionally remove or clarify jargon and other insider terminology
-avoid any humour or comparison that belittles or criticizes outsiders
-take a moment to imagine various people beyond your audience receiving this; do they understand what you’re trying to deliver?
What if you know your message may be considered insensitive, offensive, or politically incorrect?
-say so up front, acknowledge that your belief, conviction, or opinion isn’t universal
-be absolutely clear about your intent; don’t let it be vulnerable to shading, misunderstanding, or confusion
-be particularly alert to language that may overshadow the heart of what you mean to communicate
-prepare everyone on the frontlines of your organization to respond to questions and criticism
-get a sign off from those you answer to (boss, board, etc.) before risking your reputation and that of your organization
A quick example:
Several years ago I was leading an effort to start a new church when The Da Vinci Code movie was released. Many Christians were upset by the plot’s assertions considering the divinity of Jesus and the historical validity of the New Testament, the Church, and many core Christian beliefs. There were letters to the editor daily in our local newspaper critical of the movie and responses critical of those. I wanted to take a different angle.
I wrote a brief letter to the editor that essentially said I was glad that Ron Howard’s movie was causing people to have discussions about Jesus, even if they didn’t always agree with my theology. I was careful not to demean those who were offended by the movie, but clearly and concisely explained why I thought it was an opportunity to engage. Then, before submitting it, I had it reviewed by one of our board members.
The letter was published, our little church got a little free publicity, and a number of people with no connection to any church commented that they found it intriguing and positive that a church leader would express such a perspective.
Every leader sometimes needs to communicate things that are intended to their own community. As we do so, we are wise to expect that things may not stay “in house”. We can avoid a lot of embarrassment and confusion by considering that while we prepare instead of having to quickly respond to it after the fact.